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The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE NEST by Kenneth Oppel

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015

Suggested age range: 10 and up

An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers

 

SUMMARY:

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

-courtesy of Amazon

 

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf here.  

 

So what did we think?  

Eva:  Wow.  Just wow.  This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.  

Meagan:  Me too.  This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations.  Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book.  Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.   

Eva:  It’s one of those books that defies categorization.   Is it an eerie fairy tale?  A psychological thriller?  A morality tale?   I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children?  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.          

Meagan:  This book reminded me so strongly of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors).  Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier.  The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story.  Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on.  This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult.  MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.

Here’s what I came up with:  While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward.  Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination.   Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side.  They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist.  I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child.  That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG.  It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!

Eva:  Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest  because I don’t want to give too much away.    I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad.  I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:  

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.  What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them?  Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me.  They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.  

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Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together.  So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.

Eva:  What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic.  The book really plays with emotions and expectations.  Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax.  I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.     

Meagan:  I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity.  I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic.  While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own.  Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box.  The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once.  Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.

Eva:  I like that comparison!  (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”)  Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline.  He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school.  Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines.  Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.).  Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.

The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message.  The story is also so imaginative.  Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:  

“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”  

“Right again.”  

“It’s a real place.  But I thought…”  

“What did you think?”  

“That I just dreamt you.”  

“You are dreaming.  But it’s also real.”

I wasn’t sure this made any sense.  “But how can I fit inside?”  

“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world.  “Outside the nest you’re big.  Inside you’re small.”  

The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool.  Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent.  When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon.  I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.  

 

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Meagan:  Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.”  This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are.   Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.”  Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.).  Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions.  He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion.  It is intense to say the least.  

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:   Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well.  Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters.  At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge.  Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.   

Meagan:   Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison.  And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).  

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • An eerie fairy tale
  • Pacing
  • Building of suspense
  • Deep themes in a simple story
  • Simple yet effective language
  • Keeping the focus on a single storyline

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.  

Meagan:  Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do.  I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015

National Book Award Finalist

Suggested age range:  10-13 years

 

SUMMARY:

Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination.  Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.

(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.     

 

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Eva and Meagan display their favorite MG books.  To read more posts from Middle Grade Bookshelf, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  This book is formatted as a lab report.  It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away.  First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction.  It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy.  She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.

 

Eva:  Exactly.  The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc.  This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story.  John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:  

“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.  It is… what makes the parts  hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original.  And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.      

 

Meagan:  I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer.  This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.

 

Eva:  Totally.  Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too.  She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:  

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.  I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large.  Three billion.  Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting…  And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.  

I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine.  The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.

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Meagan:  I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes.  It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why.  That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character.  Very well done.

 

Eva:  Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates.  I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:  

“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.”  I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.  

Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow.  That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again.  “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?”  …  “It’s kind of like pee,” I say.  “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”  

 

Meagan:  Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best.  I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks).  It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how.  Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.  

 

Eva:  I thought the flashbacks were well done, too.  And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:  

You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.  

The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened.  We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.  

 

Meagan:  I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well.  Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic.  Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic.  The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.  

 

Eva:  I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.”  On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable?  I’m not sure.  

 

Meagan:  I also thought the book was about 30% too long.  I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more.  Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.  

 

Eva:   Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both.  Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying.  In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure.  But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.    

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.  In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does.  The Curious Incident also has a designing principle.  Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math.  Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.   

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A book with a “designing principle”
  • Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
  • A unique voice
  • Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
  • Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
  • Contemporary middle-grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.   

Meagan:  I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction.  I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way.  This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.